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MONO: ‘This Album Portrays A Story About Parting With The Past’

The Japanese post-rock band talk about their just-released album ‘Nowhere Now Here,’ working with producer Steve Albini and their India experience

Anurag Tagat Jan 28, 2019

Japanese instrumental rock band MONO. Photo: Chigi Kanbe

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While MONO’s newest album title Nowhere Now Here might evoke a sense of simplicity that’s unlike the Japanese post-rock band’s deeply emotional music, the theme is one of transition. On their 10th album, the veteran band traverse and transcend hatred to find hope.

Guitarist Takaakira Goto aka Taka says over email, “I left a story about regenerating from the pitch-black darkness which felt like ”˜nowhere’, then through dawn, welcoming the new chapter ”˜now here’.” Even at the cusp of completing 20 years as a band, Taka says MONO were faced with troubling times, which included founding member and drummer Yasunori Takada leaving the band in 2017. They soldiered on, recruiting drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla and tapped producer Steve Albini (whose credits include Nirvana, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai) and began work on Nowhere Now Here, which includes vocals for the first time (from bassist-synth player Tamaki Kunishi on “Breathe”) and over 30 orchestral instruments and synth flourishes (“Sorrow,” “Meet Us Where the Night Ends”) across 10 tracks.

Released via Pelagic Records in Europe on January 25th, Nowhere Now Here sees MONO at their poignant best yet again. It’s something they’re backing up with their relentless touring schedules. They’re touring Asia, Europe and North America all the way until June to promote the album. “Now the band is filled with fresh strong energy like we were reborn. We really feel that a new chapter has come,” Taka says.

In an interview with Rolling Stone India, the band’s guitarist talks about the making of Nowhere Now Here, their visit to India for Ziro Festival of Music in September last year and the Japanese music industry. Excerpts:

It’s safe to say that MONO is always going to be the one band that keeps touring rigorously. But what changes for you every time you embark on a new tour, apart from the music?

Sorry for not being able to think of a right answer but even during tours and off times, I’m always thinking about music so I can write even better songs and can play even better shows than before. I don’t have much head space to think about anything else because I know our time is limited in life. I always did it this way since I was young and nothing will change in the future.

A lot seems to have informed this new album. Was there ever such a difficult time in MONO’s past?

There were many tough times in the past but this time was very strong and miracle feeling. I didn’t think we would welcome our 20 year anniversary like this.

In order to continue as MONO, it was the time for us to underpin ourselves greatly. I have to say some un-seeable great power just made this work. Now the band is filled with fresh strong energy like we were reborn. We really feel that we became what we should be.

You know, you’re of course bound to face many kinds of problems if you continue a band for 20 years. I always think and feel that the ”˜time of adversity is when you can understand life’. We always got stronger by swimming against the waves, and the most important and valuable thing in life is deciding what kind of dreams you want to dream for yourself.

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You mentioned that “After You Comes the Flood” was like the angriest song the band had ever written. Yet, it seems to stand out, because the rest of the album follows a different pace, including the vocals for the first time on “Breathe.” In the writing process, was “After You Comes the Flood” one of the first songs you wrote for the new album?

Yes, for this album I started to write from “After You Comes the Flood.”

I left a story about regenerating from the pitch-black darkness which felt like ”˜nowhere’, then through dawn, welcoming the new chapter ”˜now here’. Because of this, this album is filled with completely different energy compared to our last albums.

If you cut the word ”˜nowhere’ in half, it becomes ”˜now here’. I wanted to express that by pouring the feeling of love and positivity into that one single space, you will be able to change everything.

This album portrays a story about parting with the past. From wondering a pitch-black darkness filled with hatred, anger and a sense of incongruity in the deep pit of your heart, to facing yourself and fighting through struggles, hidden light and hope of what you wish to remain, then eventually in the last scene “Vanishing, Vanishing Maybe,” you part way with the past.

“Funeral Song” seems to have a horn section, is that correct? What was the inspiration behind the song and will it be performed live?

They’re trumpets. “Funeral Song” is using different chords to the opening track “God Bless” but on purpose, using the same melody.

The album starts with fog-filled-like disharmonious “God Bless,” and through many feelings and scenes, it leads to “Funeral Song.” I wanted to write a piece which was like welcoming a calm morning, after clearing and saying goodbye to all the past in the deep night.

I wanted to express the transition of the state of mind which lacked harmony and starts to harmonize.

You mentioned in an old interview that often, Japanese bands tend to start and finish in the country, never going overseas. It was an interesting perspective, because to many, Japan feels like a self-sustaining scene, where bands can survive and not worry too much. What is it like right now?

90 percent of the Japanese bands, music industry and their surroundings can’t be helped. They’re all just shitty. They’re all so conservative towards the sound which was popular overseas two or three years ago and fusion with poor quality J-Pop. They also dress up like rock artists with trendy clothes, change their hair color and do their make-up. They’re more like TV talents rather than musicians. All they think about is their status, prestige and how much money they’ll be able to make. I don’t think this stance as an island country will not change forever.

On the other hand, the other 10 percent are fantastic artists and bands. That’s a fact. For the last years, we’ve been running an independent music festival called After Hours with our trusted friends and all the bands that play at the festival are very real. They’re like us and our colleagues, who seek true music and tour worldwide.

You worked with Steve Albini on this one, like so many more MONO albums. What did he do differently with you and the music this time, if anything?

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When we announced our drummer leaving officially, the person who got in touch with us right away was Steve. He wrote to us, ”˜Is the band ok? I look forward to seeing MONO again.’ We replied, ”˜We plan to have a new drummer and record our new album soon. We’re really looking forward to it’.

After this, when we visited Steve at his studio in July for the first time in a long time, I requested to him, ”˜We want the new album to sound like Nirvana’s In Utero’. It’s been 17 years working with Steve and this was the first time we asked him to make our sound like certain someone. He’s a really smart guy so he immediately understood what I meant, that with the new drummer, a different MONO that’s nothing like before was born, and we need the new band’s sound to be even heavier, more rock and emotional.

He’s one of our most important partners and friends who understand about MONO the most in the world. I want to continue creating albums with him for as long as we can.

Japanese instrumental rock band MONO on day one of Ziro Festival of Music, Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Shiv Ahuja

When you played in India, what was the overall experience like for you? Does MONO like playing bigger festival stages now, or are you still happy with even a club room? Or is it the best of both worlds right now?

Our first visit to India became one of our unforgettable memories. We’ve always wanted to play in India for a very long time. We met so many of our fans and truly wonderful people. We also made many friends and it truly was a fantastic experience.

But within MONO’s activity, it was one of the toughest tour journeys ever. The distance to Ziro was truly a long way (laughs). Right after, we did our European tour but by the time we arrived in England, everyone was exhausted.

I like playing at both big stage and small venues. I don’t really mind as long as the sound and the environment of the venue is good for what we want to tell and express through music.

You’re playing Roadburn Festival after your Asia dates, a few months from now. What do you do when you’re playing a predominantly “heavy music” festival? Does everyone in the band like heavy music?

We’ve previously played at Roadburn. It’s a truly fantastic festival so I’m really looking forward to it. This time to celebrate our fifth album Hymn to the Immortal Wind’s 10 year anniversary, we plan to do a special collaboration with our friend Jo Quail, who is a British cellist/composer and her string quartet.

Of course, all of us in the band have been a huge fan of heavy music since we were young.

What else is coming up through 2019, after the release of the album? Will there be more music videos?

After releasing our album, we’ll be busy. We plan to do a long world tour for roughly a year, till January 2020. This time will be our 20 year anniversary so we plan to do some special shows as well.

As far as music video goes, I can’t say much about this right now but I want to create more cinematic pieces that are different from normal music videos. We’re currently speaking about it.

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